19 This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 And he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not [q]the Christ.” 21 They asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” And he *said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 Then they said to him, “Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am a voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.”
24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25 They asked him, and said to him, “Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the [r]Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them saying, “I baptize [s]in water, but among you stands One whom you do not know. 27 It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
Back to it then. I can’t exactly say I’m excited. I haven’t been exactly that close with God lately. Mostly because I think I’m still struggling with my inner fundamentalist and equating that inner voice with God. That and I’m still struggling with uncertainty and doubt. Having believed what I was told to be the truth for so long and then discovering a world of other Christian theologies, writers, scientists, and good men who differed from what I had been assured was the ‘truth’ has left me feeling a bit adrift.
So back to the gospel of John. Maybe by continuing though this book, I can arrive at some idea of what being a Christian is really supposed to be like.
So we look at John. According to Luke, John the Baptizer was a cousin of Jesus’. Born to a priest and his wife in their old age through a miraculous intervention, John was a bit strange from his youth, running off to the desert to live the life of an aesthetic. John eschewed the life of a priest and the relative comforts and respect of the office to appear to the world as a mad hermit.
This is a guy who had a very clear picture of himself, his office, his relationship to the world, and his relationship to God. John would go on to have doubts in Jesus, as he faced continued imprisonment and execution for standing up for his beliefs, but he remained a humble man who refused to fit in with the world and its culture and expectations for him.
So his answer to the inquiries of his fellow priests makes sense. The Jews were living in a culture of messianic fervor. They were living in an occupied state under Roman rule. There were continuous clashes with the Roman authorities because of the conflict between the Jewish religious zeal and the Roman’s ignorance of their customs and a mutual lack of respect for one another.
So when a mad hermit popped up in the desert preaching a call to purity and rededication to God and everyone started to flock out to see him, the priests probably started wondering what the deal was and if they could expect another mini-revolt by a Messianic claimant and the trouble it would cause with them and Rome.
So the messengers the priests send start with the obvious question: “Who are you?”
John, having a clear picture of himself and no ambitions but to be faithful to his calling, admits up front that he isn’t the Messiah.
The messengers were probably taken aback by that answer. They had come expecting another cult leader. Now they weren’t sure what to do with him. So they go down a notch and ask if he’s Elijah.
There’s a prophesy in the Old Testament that Elijah would come again before the appearance of the Messiah. John says he’s not Elijah, at least not the literal Elijah come to Earth again. Jesus says later that John came in the spirit and power of Elijah, both were prophets given to the life of an aesthetic with an odd diet and a penchant for angering those in power. So John was like Elijah, but not in a literal sense.
So the messengers go down another notch. Moses had mentioned that another prophet like him would arise for Israel. It’s generally thought of in Christian circles that he was referring to the future Messiah, but in Jewish thought of the day, the two (Prophet and Messiah) were believed to be separate people.
John says, “No, I’m not the Prophet.”
Perplexed, the messengers finally ask him again, “Who are you? We need to tell the priests something?”
John then claims the mantle of a forerunner, citing an Old Testament passage. He was a messenger too, travelling before a King, telling the people to get everything ready for the King’s arrival.
The messengers don’t understand his meaning. They ask him by what authority he is out here baptizing people and teaching them about God. Though he is a part of the priestly tribe, he’s not a trained and accepted priest. He is, in their mind, illegitimate.
John goes back to his mission statement. He is a messenger. There is a King already among them. He is there. And John recognizes that it is from the King that he gets his authority and he is very conscious of his position in relation to the King. It’s a King they don’t know and don’t accept, so they’re left with what to them is a non-answer from John. And it sets up the conflict between the Son of God and his followers and the old guard religious establishment that runs throughout the book of John. It also reinforces the cultural dynamic of early Christians seeing themselves as outsiders called by God out of a corrupt establishment as part of a new covenant and the heirs of Judaism vs. the priestly caste of the establishment.